For a long time, scientists thought that the brain develops only in early childhood, and then becomes more static or rigid as we age. And although it is true that the brain develops most significantly in childhood, research has fortunately shown us that the brain continues to be quite resilient even in adulthood. The neurons, or the cells in our brain, have a sustained capability to form new connections and continuously strengthen or weaken them as a response to internal and external stimuli, a term coined, neuroplasticity. It is a concept that underlies our capacity to learn, form new memories, acquire new skills, and develop new capabilities. It essentially offers a way for us to understand how our life experiences can influence and physically make their mark on our brain.
Studies on neuroplasticity have great implications for counteracting instances of extreme brain damage where populations of neurons are affected, like stroke or brain lesions. However, it’s also a concept that can elucidate and explain so much about our general mental wellbeing. For example, neuroplasticity is influenced by stress and adversity. This is true in depression where neuroplasticity is reduced, and connections are weakened, leading the brain to become suspended in patterns of maladaptive thinking and behavior. On the other hand, neuroplasticity also explains why psychotherapy is effective, and how. By engaging in directed mental exercises aimed at improving cognitive functions, and by learning and practicing new coping skills, we are essentially training our brain and encouraging it to strengthen connections that underlie and manifest as positive, healthy and functional behavior and cognition.
The neuroplastic brain is a hopeful sign, a promise of regeneration, and a testament to the valuable human abilities of continued growth and resilience. Therefore, although we are to a certain extent limited by age, we are also blessed with the ability to maximize our brain function. We can encourage our brain to maintain its dynamic nature by continuously surrounding it with physical, intellectual and social stimulation. This can be harnessed through exercise – a particularly effective way to enhance neuroplasticity-, meditation, engaging in new activities, as well as spending time with friends and family.
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